Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How E-learning Works

        Culture | Learning

E-learning and College Courses
With online courses, soldiers stationed overseas can complete their coursework.
With online courses, soldiers stationed overseas can complete their coursework.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

E-learning has changed the college experience for many students. Rather than sitting through college courses and taking notes, tech-savvy Net Generation students are taking advantage of online classes and other forms of online learning. Schools are responding by looking at ways to combine the convenience of e-learning through online courses with traditional classes for a blended or hybrid approach.

Colleges have offered e-learning opportunities for longer than you may think. In 1983, Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., began offering online courses for credit. In 2006-2007, the school had 11,020 students enrolled in 863 credit-granting online courses ranging from nursing and law to computer science and oceanography [source: U.S. News E-Learning Guide and Nova Southwestern University].

While it may be one of the oldest, Nova Southeastern doesn't have the largest number of students taking online courses. The University of Phoenix topped the list in 2006-2007 with 196,140 students taking 770 online courses, followed by the University of Maryland-University College (UMUC) with 40,009 students in 691 courses [source: U.S. News E-Learning Guide].

Students at UMUC can either take traditional classes or, in many cases, sign up for an online class or opt to complete a degree online. These students also receive 24-hour library access and technical support. The flexibility of online classes has allowed some students to pursue studies under difficult circumstances.

A Tulane University senior, for instance, signed up for online classes at UMUC when Tulane closed temporarily after Hurricane Katrina. And, while stationed in Iraq, an Army captain has completed online classes toward an MBA at UMUC, which has served U.S. troops worldwide for 60 years [sources: University of Maryland University College and University of Maryland University College].

Even on campuses which focus less on e-learning, the technology has crept into everyday education. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. college students, or almost 3.5 million students in all, took at least one online course in fall 2006, according to a survey of 2,500 colleges by the Babson Survey Research Group and the Alfred P. Sloan Consortium.

The survey also shows that use of online courses grew by nearly 10 percent over a year earlier and has doubled over five years. Yet while 67 percent of higher education institutions provide online offerings, just one-third of these institutions account for 75 percent of online enrollments [source: The Sloan Consortium].

E-learning classes can be asynchronous, with instructor and students interacting occasionally via chat, messaging or e-mail, and work submitted online -- or synchronous, with students and the instructor online at the same time to communicate directly and share information. While testing for some classes is done online, schools often still want tests taken in person at a physical site to ensure security and the identity of the test taker [source: Software Secure].

Even traditional classes can have a touch of e-learning. The professor, for example, may offer podcasts of lectures that students can download and review, or an instructor may be available to answer questions immediately outside class via chat, text messaging or e-mail.

Go to the next page to learn more about how you can find and take e-learning courses.

More to Explore